Wednesday, 26 March 2008

North East unites behind Sir Bobby Robson charity bid

On Easter Monday, there was a knock at Sir Bobby Robson's door. A stranger was standing outside his Co Durham house clutching a brown envelope. “My first thought: football agent,” he said, with a familiar chuckle yesterday, and the package in question did, indeed, contain money. In used notes and loose change was £274.71; the gesture, however, was priceless.

The woman in front of him began telling Robson her story. Her husband had died recently and his final request was that mourners should not send flowers to mark his passing. Instead, he had heard that Robson was establishing a charity and asked for a collection to be made at his funeral. Here she was, clutching the proceeds. It is the kind of warmth Robson generates.

As Fabio Capello, the England manager, prepares for the friendly against France this evening, an illustrious predecessor is grappling with a different challenge. For the fifth time, Robson, 75, has been told that he has cancer and, while he remains in bubbly, fighting form, this time it is inoperable. As you would expect, it is not the end of the matter.

When Dr Ruth Plummer, Robson's oncologist, asked him if he knew of businessmen or contacts who could help to raise money for a new facility at the Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle, he went several steps further. The result is the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, which, initially at least, aims to raise £500,000 for a cancer trials research centre.

Robson has undertaken his task with the same gusto that transformed Ipswich Town into winners of the FA and Uefa Cups, made England World Cup semi-finalists, that took him on a remarkable journey to the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and back to Newcastle United. He winces at the thought of the charity carrying his name, but acknowledges the opportunity that it presents.

“There's a saying from my part of the world, which I don't really like, but maybe it's appropriate - shy bairns get nothing,” he said. “My other skirmishes have been football-related and this is medical-related and the process of raising quite a bit of money isn't easy, because it's not easy asking people for money, is it? The problem is, if I don't ask, I don't get, so I've got to take the bull by the horns.”

Robson has done so much that is positive for the reputation of English football, that the response has been overwhelming. The chairmen of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough have all promised the foundation access to their supporter databases, while Des Lynam, Peter Beardsley and Brendan Foster were present to offer their backing to the launch.

“I'm very confident all three of our clubs will stay in the Premier League and I hope so, too, because while I'm black-and-white, I'm a northeastern lad and Sunderland and Middlesbrough are very important to this region,” Robson said. “The centre we are setting up is for people across the North East and Cumbria.” Season ticket-holders will be hearing from him.

Unsurprisingly, events at St James' Park remain close to his heart. “I'm a fan again now, which is strange for me sometimes, but I enjoy it,” Robson said. “Newcastle will be in the Premier League next season and we all know they have the resources to take things on in the summer. I think they'll need five new players and that will entail spending a fair bit of money.” Spending it is no longer Robson's problem; raising it is.

Donations can be made at TheSirBobbyRobsonFoundation

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